What do public-relations practitioners do?
Apparently, we PR people don’t know. Or at least we can’t articulate it – even at the highest levels of professional leadership.
Last month, the Public Relations Society of America and several global counterparts acknowledged that PR is plagued by a crisis: A large number of people within my profession cannot explain to their clients – or even their families and friends – what they do for a living.
Public relations professionals … continue to struggle with this question,” PRSA Chair and CEO Rosanna Fiske recently blogged.
And if PR pros can’t explain why their counsel is valuable and important, then how are prospective clients – much less the rest of society – supposed to understand PR’s value?
So if you’ve ever considered hiring public-relations counsel but wondered exactly how a PR pro might help, don’t feel stupid. Feeling stupid is, apparently, something for us PR people to do.
Public-relations practitioners – the good and ethical ones – provide organizations with well-informed communications counsel, in the same way that accountants and lawyers provide invaluable specialized counsel. They create thoughtfully crafted strategies to help organizations get noticed, build support and shape public misperceptions. They tell exciting new stories of innovation and leadership. Good PR people are excellent at simplifying complex things into clear and persuasive language. They work hard help organizations stand out in a noisy, crowded world and succeed, so that those organizations can create wealth and fill important socioeconomic needs.
So one might think that the inability of many practitioners – these expert communicators – to communicate the value and importance of PR would be an embarrassment to the profession and its leadership. Something to sweep under the rug, perhaps.
But one would be wrong. The profession’s leading minds even called the New York Times and sought a story, prominently published on Nov. 21 last month airing out this stinky laundry to the world. PRSA’s Fiske even thanked the Times’ Stuart Elliott on the trade association’s website for “breaking the story” of rampant cluelessness within PR’s ranks and “giving it greater exposure than it might have otherwise received.”
One PR person even laughed as she told the Times: “My parents, for the longest time, have been trying to figure out what I do for a living.” Some fresh-out-of-college go-fer? Nope. That quote came from Fiske, the top leader in the nation’s top PR trade association. Tee hee!
This crisis of ineptitude and devaluation demanded resolution. So the industry’s leaders, moving to swiftly justify a new 13-percent annual dues increase, used the Times to announce “Public Relations Defined.” That initiative, one of its leaders explained, is a “critical exercise” in which PRSA and its international peers are crowdsourcing a collaborative, scripted answer to the question, “What is public relations?”
Here’s how crowdsourcing often works: You get someone to agree to pay you a lot of money to solve their problems with your unique creativity, expertise, leadership and experience. Then you, the expert/payee, turn around and persuade legions of strangers of utterly unknown pedigree to give you solutions – for free. Then you submit those solutions to the client, along with your bill.
In that Nov. 21 Times story, and in communications since, Fiske exhorted us members in a PRSA web update that “’Tis the season” (yes, she actually wrote that) for all of us to submit our own definitions of PR to a Comments field on PRSA’s website. We had two (holiday-interrupted) weeks to inform this “timely debate” with membership feedback.
Fiske and her peers at a few foreign PR associations vow to take all of the comments under very serious consideration as they draft the new definition of public relations, for which the world has been clamoring.
When Fiske and her collaborators are done, we followers will finally be able to explain to our parents, Facebook friends and clients what it is that we do and why we’re important, because other people will have told us what to say.